- Contributed by
- Isle of Wight Libraries
- People in story:
- Ken Devile
- Location of story:
- El Aroussa, North Africa; Caserta, Italy; Florence, Italy
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 17 October 2005
This story was submitted to the People’s War site by Bernie Hawkins and has been added to the website on behalf of Ken Devile with his permission and he fully understands the site’s terms and conditions.
What I’d like to get across is not the details of the events in which I was involved — I’ll include only as much of them as necessary — but the feelings I had at the time. The feeling of war is not always what you might expect. During my war I went through three distinct responses: detachment, depression, and finally fear.
I was a wireless operator with the 51st Royal Tank Regiment. On the 28th of February, 1943, we were to go into action for the first time. The place was El Aroussa, and a farmhouse named “Steam Roller Farm” to the east of El Aroussa was our objective. Reconnaissance by the Derbyshire Yeomanry showed the farm to be heavily defended.
While we were waiting for the order to move, a little girl aged about 10 walked through the lines with her dog. She asked to be shown over one of the tanks and we let her scramble aboard. Her home was El Aroussa station and her father was the stationmaster. I bet he hadn’t had much to do for a long time. Soon after she went home, at about mid-day, we set off, with some of the infantry getting a lift on top of the tanks. On this occasion, I was the driver in the squadron 2nd i/c’s tank. Unusual for me as a qualified wireless operator but tank crews had to be adaptable. I was in ‘A’ Squadron and the names of our tanks all began with the letter ‘A’. Mine was Amazon. I remember one guardsman who was about to alight from my tank say to me, “I wouldn’t like to be in your shoes.” What did he know that I didn’t?
We crossed the level crossing near the railway station and turned left up the road to our objective. As soon as we had covered 200 yards or so the shelling started. Small stuff —we were unlikely to come to any harm because of it. It made me think, however, that I would not like to be in that guardsman’s shoes. We made very slow progress, stopping and starting, and intelligence from other units was vague and spasmodic. The forward observation officer for the artillery could not get a fix on a specific target and it was assumed that their guns were out of range anyway. The infantry were pinned down by the shelling and unable to make any progress towards the farmhouse to mop up the anti-tank guns which were holding us up. A couple of hours went by and the movement was minimal.
At last we were told that the farmhouse was clear. A couple of tanks proceeded up the road heading towards a mountain pass. I was told to cross a field and head towards the farmhouse at best possible speed. There was less than 300 yards to go when a couple of Stukas (dive-bombers) appeared. My tank was the first to be attacked. The first bomb came quite close, but the second one struck our left track, splitting it in two. At the speed we were travelling the momentum spun the tank around a complete 180 degrees, so that the rear was facing the farmhouse. At the same time an anti-tank gun opened fire and the shell buried itself in the engine compartment at the back. If it wasn’t for the skill of that German pilot hitting our track and so turning us round, the tank would have been hit in the front and I would not be here to write this.
I scrambled out and walked towards the road through this magnificent field of poppies. This was when detachment took over. I was conscious of shells falling around me but mentally I wasn’t with it. I kidded myself that they were solid anti-tank shells which would need to hit me direct to do me any real harm. Ignorance is bliss. It was some time later when I realised that they were mortar shells. I was told several years later that one shell exploded just behind me, throwing up a clod of earth which hit me on the back of the head.
I walked on, completely oblivious to it all, until I reached the road. There was a ditch on the right-hand side with a few guardsmen taking shelter. Most were casualties, one with his leg hanging by a thread and he was still conscious. He asked me for a cigarette, which I gave him. There was little else I could do.
Eventually I reached our echelon and was told that a hot meal was ready. There were small groups discussing their experiences. I didn’t join them, but I grabbed myself a dinner and a mug of tea and even went back for seconds. I was starving. Then I stayed in my tent, still by myself, churning over the events of the day. This had been my first action, but I just felt indifferent to it. I couldn’t see the point in talking about it. I never asked any questions about who died, who survived, casualties. All I had wanted to do when I got back was eat. I even remember noting that there was more grub available than usual because some had not made it back. It was as if it was just a normal day.
On the 14th of May 1944 we crossed the River Gari, near Caserta, north of Naples, to meet up with some Canadian infantry who had already been in action there and had prepared the ground to enable us to make some headway towards the main objective, an attack on the Adolf Hitler Line. We reached a position 2,000 to 3,000 yards from the Line on the night of the 18th/19th of May.
Intelligence reports wrongly stated that the Line was only lightly defended and it was decided to rush it, with my Squadron supporting the Canadians, the Royal 22nd Regiment. First, we had to pass through an extremely thickly wooded area and we suffered some casualties from concealed anti-tank guns. On reaching the far edge of the wood and in sight of the Adolf Hitler Line proper, my tank commander noticed a flash from a gun on our right and he ordered the gunner to traverse the turret to get a bearing on it.
Before we went into action I had had a premonition that it was not going to be my day. If you are sitting in the front of the tank and the turret is moved only a few inches, it prevents the top flaps from being opened, which is the usual way of getting in and out. The only alternative is through escape hatches at the side. These openings are only large enough to wriggle through and drop down on the ground outside. A “fatty” stood no chance. The hatches were heavy to open and invariably stuck. A hefty blow with a hammer or something similar was the only way to open them, so I decided to have a track spanner within easy reach.
Our gunner did not have time to move the turret round before the German gun fired again. This time it was spot on target and the armour-piercing shell penetrated our hull at the side, setting fire to the ammunition in the turret. Out of the corner of my eye, I spotted a huge red flash and I set to work with the track spanner. The side door moved easily and I scrambled out, feet first. I ran to a farmhouse 100 yards away and there was another of our lads, whom I knew was a wireless operator from another tank, huddled in the corner crying his eyes out. I spoke to him but got no response so I stayed there, thinking it was safer in than out. After about an hour I got tired of his bawling and I took a look outside the back door. There was a stone wall on my right a few inches higher than me and I walked a few feet further. Not too far, however, as a machine gun opened fire, peppering the top of the wall just above my head. I went back inside.
Later on — I cannot remember how much later but it seemed a long time — a Canadian infantry officer came in and he suggested that we made a move back to our base as the Germans were preparing a counter-attack. “Watch out for snipers”, he said “They are hiding in the trees.” I tried to get matey to come with me but he would not budge from his corner. I never saw him again. I wonder what became of him.
I took stock of my surroundings. Beyond the wood was undulating country, lovely green fields. I set off back through the woods amidst sounds of firing and shelling and eventually I reached the road. I turned right and set off down the road, on one side of which was a ditch full of dead animals in various states of decomposition. The stench was abominable. I had covered only a few yards when a machine gun opened fire and the bullets missed me by inches.
There was only one thing to do and that was to dive into the stinking ditch with the dead animals. So I crawled along this ditch for 300 — 400 yards until I could see a bend in the road. I climbed back on the road and ran hell-for-leather round the bend and in sight of squadron lines.
I was in a confused state with my ears ringing and the mother of all headaches. I made for the M.O.’s tent, told him how I felt, and he gave me a couple of aspirins. I walked towards my tent and there seemed to be nobody else around. Then I spotted Sammy Reeves coming towards me and he had a sightless expression on his face — seeing but not taking it in. Sammy was a tough lad and loved a fight when he was drunk. This time he ignored me and walked on down the side of the valley to the river below. I shouted at him to come back as the bridge across the river was under constant shellfire. He took no notice and just walked on. I never saw him again.
I was on my own and a fit of depression came over me. I became suicidal and I pulled my pistol from its holster, prepared to end it all. Something held me back. It was the thought of how my mother would feel when she was notified of my death. The pistol went back in its holster. I’m glad that sanity prevailed, otherwise I would have missed out on a wonderful and happy life.
It was July 1944 and we had covered a lot of ground, 40 — 50 miles, with few casualties since we had left Arezzo. Most of this advance was on tank transporters as the Churchill tank could travel only a mile on four gallons of fuel. We reached a point less than a mile from the River Arno, within sight of Florence, and made camp in an olive grove while a plan of campaign was prepared for us.
After a couple of days, the troop officers had a briefing with the C.O. and infantry officers. It was decided we would cross the river on the river bed itself, rather than across the bridges which were probably mined. I don’t think anyone was certain about the depth of the river, but to be on the safe side we had extensions fitted to our exhausts and were given tins of Bostik to seal up the escape hatches at the side. As I was the driver I did not think much of this idea. It was a death-trap as it restricted you to exit from the top, which as I said before would be impossible if the turret was traversed across the flaps.
Another briefing of troop officers and this time the plan was more detailed. ‘A’ Squadron would be the first to be committed, following a line parallel to a bridge, which led to the main road into Florence. My tank would lead the attack! Even if we survived the river crossing, I imagined that there would be an anti-tank gun somewhere along that road into Florence. My tank would be a sitting duck. There was some good news, though. Our recce officer had succeeded in crossing the river and had penetrated a mile the other side, ending up on Florence Golf Course. He mentioned no opposition. An early breakfast would be laid on so that we moved off about seven o’clock. There would be a final briefing of officers later that evening.
Needless to say, I got very little sleep that night. My imagination ran riot and, for the first time ever, I felt really frightened. It was not so much if I was going to survive but how I was going to die. The night dragged on until at six o’clock it was time for a quick wash and breakfast, not that I fancied anything. Seven, eight and nine o’clock came round and we wondered what was happening. Eventually, our troop officer called us to gather round. He said that the recce officer, who was alone in his scout car, struck a mine in the road and was blown to bits. He was on his way for the final briefing. I doubt whether his death was a contributory factor in calling off the operation. Recce officers were expendable. I never felt so relieved in all my life. Any more breakfast left?
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